A Homestay in Lembeni
While in Tanzania, I decide to spend four nights with a family in a local village. I am already in Moshi and walk to the local bus station to catch a bus to Lembeni. The Moshi bus station is insane. Actually insane. There are dozens of men with boxes on their heads, shouting into the windows of the buses. In these boxes are snacks, drinks, cell phone accessories, and more. They are all fighting each other to make a sale to anyone on the bus. I see this and brace myself as I try to push my way through to talk to the bus driver. Umm excuse me, does this bus go to Lembeni? He looks at me with a confused face. Lembeni? Yes, Lembeni. Ummm, yes it does but why do you want to go there? I am staying with a family. He stares at me blankly but says okay and hands me a ticket.
I take a seat on the bus and about 4 hours later, the bus driver looks at me and yells, Lembeni! I make my way to the front of the crowded bus and step off alone. The bus, still full of people, pulls away into the distance. My guide is waiting for me there on the side of the road. He introduces himself and I follow him down the red clay road. The village is small but it is hard to tell how many people actually live here because there is only one road and it curves up ahead behind the houses.
We arrive to a large red gate and enter to meet my hosts, two sisters who live in the house together. I am greeted with a warm “Karibu!” (Which means welcome, and a word I will come to hear often over the next week.) Their house is one story with three bedrooms. Pretty spacious, I even get a bedroom all to myself. I drop off my things and the guide brings in an itinerary with a list of activities that we will be doing over the next few days. Plant trees in a local forest. Visit a Masaai village. Cook with my host family. Eat meals together.
Before my trip, every single person that heard I was coming to Tanzania warned me about the food. They told me. “There are not the most sanitary conditions. You will definitely get sick at some point, it is expected. When I went to Tanzania, I got really sick for a few days.” Even when I went to get my yellow fever shot, the doctor went over all of the other diseases I could get there and advised me to be careful about the food I eat while I am there. It can make me really sick. Well luckily I brought probiotics and anti-diarrhea medicine to pop before every meal.
BUT FIRST, SOME R&R, PLEASE.
I am tired from the long trip and tell my host family that I am going to go to sleep for the night. The next morning, I wake up early and head to the bathroom to take a shower. I see a toilet, but no shower.
I walk in the living room. Good morning! Excuse me, where is the shower? Oh, I will prepare it for you! Would you like cold water or hot water? Wow they are really taking care of me here. Talk about hospitality. Cold water is fine. Whatever is easier. After about three minutes, she returns and leads me to the bathroom. There is one large bucket of water and a small bucket floating on top. Here you go. Okay, perfect. I quickly learn that they have no running water at all in this village. Before meals, we pass around a pitcher filled with water and one person holds the pitcher and pours out water over our hands while we wash them over a bucket.
It is the first time I have stayed somewhere without any running water. Which is actually a great experience. Each time I wash myself from that bucket, I think of the evolution of running water and wonder at what point showering became a luxury instead of a necessity. And how many times I have stood there in the shower at home, letting the hot water massage my back, not even appreciating the entire experience or that I am able to even do that at all. Anyways, more on that another day.
DO YOU WANT ME TO GET YOU PREGNANT?
After breakfast, my guide picks me up and we spend the entire day planting trees together. He doesn’t say much, just watches me. In the car he asks, how old are you? I answer, thirty-five. Where is your husband? I tell him that I have been asking myself the same question! I laugh. He does not. Well do you at least have children? No. No, I do not. “Why not?” He asks. Hmmm many reasons. Well why didn’t you have children with any of your previous boyfriends? Oh wow. I guess because it just didn’t feel right. Well why don’t you go out and find someone to have children with? I mean, I am not in a rush to have children. I am fine, thanks.
But who will take care of you when you are old and can no longer take care of yourself? A question I will be asked multiple times every single day I am in Africa. So much that at the end of my trip, I left wondering, who WILL take care of me when I am older?
I respond, I don’t know. He turns to me and places his hand on my arm. Looks me in the eyes and says, what if I told you I will have children with you? Hmm well I would say that is inappropriate because you are married. I don’t know this man and the entire energy in the car has changed. I am alone. In a far away land with no cell service. A little scared of if he will try to take me up on his offer without my consent. I sit tense next to him the rest of the way home. Please just let me get back to the village and out of his car safely.
WE ARE TAKING YOU TO THE HOSPITAL
We pull up and I get out of the car, mumble goodbye, and walk into the house as quickly as possible. Welcome home! How was it? My anxiety still present but I tell them it was fine. She says, let’s go next door and meet the neighbors who are helping to prepare dinner. Okay. We walk through the gate to the house next to us. There is a woman sitting on the ground, husking corn. A pile of cow shit inches from where she is sitting. Two sickly looking cows, the size of dogs, lying on the ground next to her. Flies jumping from the cow shit to the corn and back again.
I start to feel dizzy. Nice to meet you, I say. Then turn to ask my host, “Can we go for a walk?” Sure. We say goodbye and walk around to get some fresh air. My stomach hurts already just thinking about this dinner we are about to eat. No running water. Corn with cow shit all over it. We may even be eating these sick looking cows for dinner. We head back to the house just as her sister is finishing up cooking dinner. We sit down.
She puts some corn on my plate along with some mystery meat. My plate is completely full. Overflowing. More food than I can possibly eat. And I can usually eat a lot. We sit there and I take a couple bites. I immediately feel sick. Most likely because of my anxiety and also knowing where this food came from. I don’t feel well, can I lay down for a moment? They look at me. You don’t feel well? We will take you to the hospital. No, no. I don’t need to go to the hospital, I just need to lay down. No, no if you can’t even eat, we will take you to the hospital. We will call your guide to come back and get you. No, please don’t.
There is a language barrier. They only speak a few words of English. I try to explain to them I don’t need to go to the hospital. Well, then eat. I don’t know much about African culture but I do know it is rude to not finish your food when eating as a guest in someone’s home. I am not sure what to do because I don’t want to go to the hospital, I don’t think I can eat this food, and I definitely do not want to spend time alone with my guide again.
They continue to sit there and stare at me, pleading that I need to go to the hospital. I try to explain to them that I am just tired but they don’t understand. They end up calling my guide to come back over and get me. He comes over and says he will take me to the hospital. I don’t need to go to the hospital. I am super frustrated at this point and his presence is not helping. I start to break down and cry. I feel overwhelmed. He asks, are you crying because you don’t have a boyfriend? No, I am crying because I can’t eat this food and I just want to lay down.
Eat your food and you will feel better. I can’t. Then you should go to the hospital. I eat a few more spoonfuls of food and tell them I am sorry but I am finished. I head to my room. As I close my eyes, I can’t help but be thankful I only have two more days left here.
NOTHING BUT LOVE
The next morning, one of the women comes in and asks how I am doing. I tell her, thank you, I feel better. She comes up to me, looks me in the eyes, and tells me that she just wants me to feel happy. If I don’t want to eat something, that is okay. Just speak up and tell them. She smiles and hugs me. I can’t help but let out a big smile and feel so much better inside. Breakfast is ready, she says.
I walk out of my room and can tell they must have talked about the situation from the night before because they are extra sweet to me. We share breakfast with only a few words but many smiles. They tell me they are going to church and I say I would like to join. It is always interesting to see the traditions of different religions and cultures. It turns out it is a very special day at church. After an hour long ceremony, we parade around the village singing songs, stopping to light candles. It is really amazing to see how much everyone enjoys this. And I love even more how no one looks at me strange for joining them.
After church, we head to a nearby market and I stand there while my host talks and laughs with her friends. I always enjoy seeing how people live. It makes me really think about how this is what their everyday life is like. So different than mine. Yet the feelings are the same.
The rest of the day we spend at their home. People from the village stop by at various times throughout the day and sit down on the couch with us. All talking to each other and just smiling at me. She tells me they heard I was in town and wanted to come and meet me. Such a good feeling and I love seeing how much they welcome everyone who stops by their home, with a loud “Karibu,” offering them drinks and cookies.
The day has come for me to leave and I am genuinely sad. I feel like misunderstandings in the beginning somehow brought us closer. While this homestay was initially hard for me, it was good in that it really brought me out of my comfort zone. Once I became aware of the cultural differences, I was able to embrace them more fully. This is what traveling (and life in general) is all about. You go in thinking one thing and then if you have an open mind, you realize things were completely different than you expected. It is both eye opening and humbling.
Many people in this part of Africa, and in many other cultures as well, do have children so that they have someone to look after them when they are older. When my guide offered, I now honestly believe that he was genuinely trying to help me. I also realized that in a village as small as this, when someone gets sick, it can get pretty bad. My hosts were only trying to help me as well. And I think the warnings about food before the trip had tainted my perspective a bit. Because the food I did eat, was absolutely delicious. And I never actually did get sick while traveling in Tanzania. And as usual, I ate everything.
What I thought was a bad situation was really just love, all around me. I learned a lot about myself during those four days. While we didn’t actually do all that much, I experienced more than I ever imagined that I would. If you ever have the chance to spend time in someone else’s home in a different country, I highly recommend it. I am so thankful that these two women were willing to open up their home and share a part of their lives with me.
I still don’t want any older man that I don’t know, to get me pregnant, but now that I know more about the culture, I can strangely say that I really do appreciate the offer.